Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed – 11th September 2019
“a brilliant piece of writing, but its formal dazzle ultimately detracts from its emotional resonance”
In February of this year, The Guardian ran an article charting the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe. France reported a 74% increase in the number of offences against Jews in 2018 and Germany said the number of violent antisemitic attacks had surged by more than 60%. Here in the UK, the Community Security Trust (CST) – which monitors anti-Semitism among the Jewish community in Britain – said the 892 incidents so far reported this year mark a 10% increase on the same period last year. Islamophobia too is on the rise, and the disturbing trend of xenophobia and intolerance is being felt sharply by immigrants and the LGBTQ community Europe-wide. Against this backdrop, Orange Tree Theatre’s programming of Maya Arad Yasur’s 2018 play Amsterdam couldn’t be more timely.
By tracing the origin of an unpaid gas bill, which our unnamed protagonist finds herself having to deal with, Yasur invites us to look again at the devastation of the Jewish population of the Netherlands, 75% of whom were killed in the Holocaust, and also to consider the polyglot nature of modern Europe, and what it means to be an immigrant. She doesn’t forget that Jews and Arabs are each Semitic peoples, and in an early scene in a supermarket queue we are made aware of the shared experience of a woman wearing a hijab and our Jewish protagonist; of the exhaustion of the continual awareness of the second-guessing of one’s identity – ‘She’s thinking he’s thinking she’s thinking’ – and the weight of being viewed as a representative – ‘Why do I carry around this flag wherever I go?’.
Yasur has quite rightly chosen to address the palimpsest of European history with a degree of formal experimentation, recognising that this complex layering of experience, these different voices and memories, demand a non-linear narrative language. The text is shared by four actors, who tease out its meaning, tossing phrases between themselves like a ball, dancing with repetitions and tangents, punctuating with amplified Dutch phrases, leading us along the circuitous paths of this city and its history, toward a final narrative revelation and resolution.
Amsterdam is a demanding watch, and requires intellectual concentration. Such theatrical moments as there are are few and far between, and seem grafted on to the text to throw the audience a bone rather than stemming organically from the words themselves. The text is king here. And Matthew Xia (director) isn’t quite brave enough to let it fully reign. The success of The Brothers Size at the Young Vic in 2017 showed that London audiences can do stripped back, and this production could have followed its example. The chain metal curtain, the chairs, the glasses; all seemed superfluous, clumsy and dead, in contrast to the living, shape-shifting text, which is its own illustration. Similarly, this is a piece in which the performers are storytellers, not actors, and the show would have benefited from less verbal demonstration. Asking an actor not to act is difficult, but less is more in this instance, and the text didn’t need as much help as they gave it.
Amsterdam is a brilliant piece of writing, but its formal dazzle ultimately detracts from its emotional resonance. ‘No-one wants to hear about the Jews anymore’ our protagonist states, and Yasur’s writing is fierce in its counter-attack. But these words need to be felt; not merely heard. Theatre at its best can hit the heart, and Amsterdam, to its detriment, leaves this power unharnessed.
Reviewed by Andrew Wright
Photography by Helen Murray
Orange Tree Theatre until 12th October